An interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor for The Washington Post.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the architect of the recent agreement with Secretary of State John Kerry to remove chemical weapons from Syria, spoke with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday. Lavrov made clear that Russia is determined to see Syria remain unified but that it does not insist that President Bashar al-Assad remain in power. Excerpts:

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What was your reaction to President Obama’s speech Tuesday at the United Nations?

It addressed important issues, and he stated willingness to cooperate on resolving problems in the Middle East and to help us find common approaches, which is the key for the international community. . . . No one country can solve problems which are becoming transborder, transnational, common threats and challenges.

President Obama spoke about enforcement of the Syrian chemical weapons agreement that you and Secretary Kerry came up with. . . . Do you see some enforcement mechanism being built in?

The chemical weapons problem in Syria is first of all an issue for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW]. The president of Syria addressed the secretary general of the United Nations and the director general of the OPCW with a formal request to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

You’re speaking of President Bashar al-Assad?

Yes, President Assad. He asked formally to accede to the convention, and now he’s under legal obligation derived from this convention. And the steps of the Syrian government indicate clearly that they are fulfilling their obligations under this convention. . . . We also agreed in Geneva with John Kerry that we will initiate a Security Council resolution which will support and reinforce the decision of the Chemical Weapons Convention. . . . We will be very serious about any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, and those issues will be brought to the Security Council under Chapter 7 [of the U.N. Charter, which includes a provision for the use of force].

Secretary Kerry says an enforcement mechanism under Chapter 7 should be part of the U.N. resolution, and you apparently disagree.

The Geneva framework is available, and anyone can read what is in it. And we agreed today with John Kerry that we would follow that understanding in . . . the Security Council resolution.

So there is no difference between the Russian and American positions?

As these positions are reflected in the Geneva framework of the 14th of September? No.

In President Obama’s speech, he spoke of consequences if the Syrians fail to comply.

I cannot speak about the individual position of any U.N. member. I can only speak about the arrangements to which Russia is a party, and we are a party to the Geneva framework of the 14th of September, and we are committed to implement this fully.

So if there were violations, you would go back to the Security Council and get another resolution to do something about it?

Exactly.

How did this chemical weapons agreement come about? The White House said President Vladimir Putin and President Obama discussed chemical weapons several times, starting at the G-20 summit in Mexico last year. Then there’s the story that Secretary Kerry just threw out this remark that if President Assad were to agree give up chemical weapons, then the United States wouldn’t use force. Then, Russia quickly produced this chemical weapons proposal.

We aren’t looking for any credit. Indeed, the presidents of Russia and the United States discussed this threat of chemical weapons in Syria in Los Cabos in June of last year on the margins of the G-20 summit in Mexico. They agreed that the biggest threat to peace and security was an eventuality when chemical weapons might get into the hands of terrorists. When they met again, at the G-8 summit in Lough Erne [in Northern Ireland] in June of this year, the reports about the use of chemical weapons were already available. Russian experts even investigated one such report of the use of the weapons on March 19 in the vicinity of Aleppo. There were other reports, and it was obvious that this threat was not just a probability, but it was already with us. Therefore, Putin and Obama agreed to think how we can make sure that all these reports are investigated and the results are brought to the Security Council.

By the time they met on the margins of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg on the 5th of September, they had a talk about some practical steps which could be taken to resolve the problem of chemical weapons in Syria once and for all. We initiated through John Kerry’s statement and my support of that statement the process which is now underway. And we are gratified that the Syrian government responded very efficiently and promptly.

Did John Kerry throw out the statement on purpose, or was it an accident?

Ask him. We took it as a statement that reflected the need of the day.

Did Russia put a lot of pressure on President Assad to cooperate?

We certainly conveyed to the Syrian government our conviction that the chemical weapons problem must be resolved on the basis of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and we are satisfied that the president of the Syrian republic responded promptly and positively.

How will the United States verify that Syria is being forthcoming about its stock of chemical weapons?

I don’t know. I know the American ambassador to the OPCW looked into the declaration submitted by the Syrians and found it quite good.

Russia is still saying that it was the rebels who fired the chemical weapons on Aug. 21 — not the Assad regime?

Yes, we believe there is very good evidence to substantiate this.

Are you willing to present this evidence?

Yes, I just presented a compilation of evidence to John Kerry when we met a couple of hours ago. This evidence is not something revolutionary. It’s available on the Internet. They are reports by journalists who visited the sites and talked to the combatants, who said they were given some unusual rockets and ammunition by some foreign country and they didn’t know how to use them. There is also evidence from the nuns living in the monastery nearby who visited the site. You can read the assessments by the chemical weapons experts who say that the images shown do not correspond to a real situation if chemical weapons were used. And we also know about the open letter sent to President Obama by former operatives of the CIA saying the assertion that the [Syrian] government used chemical weapons was fake. So you don’t need to have any spy reports to make your own conclusions, you only need to carefully watch what is available in public.

So you don’t have any intelligence reports you haven’t shared with the world?

No. On the occasion of the incident in Aleppo on March 19th, when the United Nations, under the pressure [from] some Security Council members, didn’t respond to the request of the Syrian government to send inspectors to investigate, Russia, at the request of the Syrian government, investigated and the results of this investigation are broadly available to the Security Council and the public. The main conclusion is the type of sarin used in that incident was homemade, and we also have evidence that the type of sarin used on Aug. 21st was the same, only of higher concentration.

I understand that fighters from the Caucasus have gone through Turkey into Syria. . . .Do you fear the possibility of violence spilling over from Syria into the Caucasus?

This should not be addressed just to Russia. The jihadists come from many European countries, Russia included, and some even from the United States; hundreds of them — if you take Europe, Russia and the U.S. — are fighting in the ranks of extremist groups. I am sure they are gaining the experience which they will try to use after the Syrian crisis is over elsewhere, first and foremost in their home countries. This is our common threat. That is what we must be discussing and not just engaging in the rhetoric of who should go and who should stay, which authoritarian leader is unacceptable and which authoritarian leader could stay for some time as long as he plays the right game. . . .

Either we agree that any terrorism is unacceptable, or we will be playing a double-standard game where some son of a bitch is okay because he is our son of a bitch.

Do you think the U.S. administration came to understand the threat of extremism and that is the basis on which the Russians and Americans are now able to work together?

It’s not only the United States, but by now everyone understands this threat. It motivates people to convene Geneva II. To do this, we need to stick to the Geneva communique of last year, which provides for a political process. . . .It’s only the Syrians themselves who can resolve the problems of their country and determine its destiny. . . .The Syrian government and the opposition groups must agree on the composition of a transitional governing body, which will have full executive authority. . . .You cannot impose on one side or another a solution. . . .

If people are motivated by the desire to change the regime, then I am afraid we are in for a very long civil war.

Do you see the United States and Russia working together on other issues, such as Afghanistan?

We work together in Afghanistan. We provide transit facilities, we cooperate in equipping the Afghan army and security forces with arms and helicopters, we cooperate in training officers for law enforcement agencies. We’d like to do more in fighting drugs that are coming from Afghanistan.

We also cooperate on many other issues. Nuclear energy, for example. We agreed on visa facilitations. Now American and Russian tourists and businessmen can ask for three-year multiple visas, and the waiting time should not be more than 14 days. President Putin suggested to President Obama: “Why don’t we move to a visa-free regime?” . . .

The meeting of the two presidents, which was scheduled for Moscow before the G-20 summit, was supposed to endorse several important documents, including a presidential statement on the strategic prospects of Russian-American relations. . . . We don’t overdramatize the fact that this summit was postponed. We believe Russian-American relations are broader and larger than emotions and mutual grudges, including the situation with the U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden.

How do you see the recent developments in U.S.-Iran relations? What’s your assessment of the new president of Iran?

I’m not about personal characteristics. So far, what we hear from Tehran is encouraging. They confirmed the need to continue negotiations, they expressed their desire and willingness to be more transparent and to be more concentrated on reaching a result. Provided, of course, that the reciprocity is there.

You mean the lifting of sanctions?

Absolutely. The sanctions were imposed because of the lack of results in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. If progress is achieved, this must be followed and reciprocated by softening and eventually lifting the sanctions.

Didn’t you have a proposal a few years ago for a stage-by-stage plan: Iran would do certain things, and in exchange, certain sanctions would be lifted?

That’s right. It was the only workable version.

Is Russia wedded to President Assad? Or could there be another leader of Syria who could help solve this crisis?

We are not wedded to anyone in Syria. We are not concerned with any personality. We are concerned with keeping Syria in one piece, territorially integral, sovereign, independent and secular, where the rights of all groups, ethnic and others, are fully respected. And that is the goal which I believe the United States also has. The more we try to find common approaches to get there, the more efficient our cooperation will be.

lally.weymouth@washpost.com

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